Following the heart – Sursum corda!

In our daily reading of the sayings of the Desert Fathers the following attributed to Abba Isidore stuck out:

The same Abba Isidore said, ‘It is the wisdom of the saints to recognize the will of God. Indeed, in obeying the truth, man surpasses everything else, for he is the image and likeness of God. Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is that of following one’s own heart, that is to say, one’s own thought, and not the law of God. A man who does this will be afflicted later on, because he has not recognized the mystery, and he has not found the way of the saints in order to work in it. For now is the time to labour for the Lord, for salvation is found in the day of affliction: for it is written: “By your endurance you will gain your lives.”‘


“Follow your heart”. How many times have I heard this? It seems of late to have become a mantra of sorts, a justification for all kinds of actions, especially selfish ones (I’ve heard it employed even in abandoning one’s spouse after years of marriage). The premise seems to be that the heart cannot err, that it is the best compass to one’s happiness. Yet, is this the truth? My take on it would be yes and no.

A saying attributed to St. Macarius sheds some light on my position:

[T]he heart itself is but a little vessel, and yet there are dragons, and there lions, and there venomous beasts, and all the treasures of wickedness ; and there are rough uneven ways, there chasms ; there likewise is God, there the angels, there life and the kingdom, there light and the apostles, there the heavenly cities, there the treasures, there are all things.

First, let us address the No. From what I am able to ascertain, those who use “follow your heart” as their rationale tend to identify the feelings which spring from there as the most genuine, and so they act on them. These are people who tend to simply act on their passions, saying that they are free to do what they want. Generalizations? Perhaps, but not unfounded, I believe, given what I’ve been able to glimpse from conversations. Is acting on the passions an expression of freedom? Is it even wise? Do the passions, as they are, bring us happiness? One need not be a Christian to know that this is not the case. Even the ancient pagan philosophers knew that obeying one’s passions is not freedom, but slavery. If one wanted to live a virtuous life – it is the virtuous life which brings about happiness – then the passions had to be mastered; they had to be subject to reason; they had to be re-ordered.
This kind of “follow your heart” stems from a solipsistic mindset of sorts: man is an island; my actions have no impact on others; I am the master of my destiny; my happiness comes before all other considerations; I am a law unto myself. Has not happiness in this case been turned into an idol? The heart, which is indeed the compass of happiness, is not free; it is a slave of the passions. It is like a compass near which metal has been placed, pointing every which way, acting erratically, throwing one forever off course, making happiness an elusive thing. The happiness sought this way is not happiness at all, but fleeting pleasure.


So will obeying the heart not bring us happiness? It will, but it requires discipline – askesis – and prayer. The happiness that comes from this, however, might very well not be the kind which those who use the mantra envision. One might compare the heart to a garden: if the garden is not maintained, if the weeds are not extracted, if the plants are not watered, eventually the garden becomes derelict, overrun by the weeds and the flowers die. Anyone who has tried to cultivate even the smallest patch will know this is true. The saints show us that purifying the heart, ordering the passions, is a lifelong struggle, which depends not only on our own powers, but most of all on the Lord’s grace.
Do I want to obey my heart? Do I want it to bring me to eternal happiness? As an aspiring Benedictine oblate obeying and listening are very much an integral part of my spiritual life. If I want to obey my heart then it must become like one which I know is the purest heart of all, the humble heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. To follow my heart then will mean to follow the Lord. I will follow my heart because I know that He will be abiding within me.

It is especially during Holy Mass that this is brought home for me. When the priest hauntingly intones Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts”), that is when I am especially reminded of the need of purification of the heart. Sursum corda – here, O Lord, is my heart. Here is all that I am, here is my totality, which broken and maculate as it is, I offer up to you. Sursum corda – take it, o Lord, into the furnace of your love and burn away the dross. Sursum corda – that I may be able to offer it you, through your Son, ever purer, O heavenly Father.

Sursum corda!

Do you wish to follow your heart? Then follow it on high. Sursum corda!


Light (or, the Ascent) – Part II

Picking up from the previous post: what exactly did I believe, and which was the God that had answered my prayers?


At that moment I simply knew that the God who had answered my prayers could be only one, and that monotheistic God could only be He who had given up His only Son. I did not know what that meant at the time – I couldn’t perhaps even articulate it – but I was certain of it, almost intuitively you might say. There was only one God, and He was the God of the Christians.  And remember, at this point I knew next to nothing about the Christian faith; I could hardly recall  anything of my Sunday school upbringing, and  studying for several years in a Catholic school did not really impart any profound or significant Catholic teaching.


I did not return to the Church all at once. For a while, all I could do was pray Psalm 23 (22). For a time, that – and the promise to lead a virtuous life – sufficed. Christ’s death and resurrection were to be understood allegorically. Though I did believe that He had died on the Cross, His resurrection was something that my reasoning abhorred. If He did “come back”, it couldn’t have been in body; maybe it was a spirit or such. And how could His death do anything for me? Why was His passion effective for me if He had undergone it? (Remember, radical individualism was still in my system) No, if His death and resurrection  were to have any import on my life, it was that they signified all those times that I die to myself and arise anew after hardships, purged and a better/stronger man. And yet, reading through the entries of that period, I see that the conversion was a gradual process. Coupled with the desire for a virtous life, there were still pagan elements in it, thoughts and desires which  were still quite opposed to Christian morality.

At the same time this was going on a Russian and a Dane came into my life. I can no longer remember exactly, but I think I discovered Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard in relation to Nietzsche. From the Dane I learned that following Christ was something “radical”: that there had to be a change in my life, that following Him could not be a merely intellectual exercise, with no impact on the way I lived my life. Either I would follow Him and my life would change, or I would follow Him not at all. There was to be no middle ground. From the Russian’s novels came the subtle fragrance of the Gospel, stories of repentance and forgiveness. I was puzzled at the belief of a physically resurrected Christ that came across in the novels, but I decided not to mock it and remain “open”.


Somewhere along the line I realised that this one man show was not tenable, and so I began to consider my options. If I were to be a Christian, I needed to belong to a body of believers; I could not make it up as I went along. Christ had certainly left something behind which would have lasted to the present and which could be easily identified. I saw three options: Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism. As for Protestantism, I dismissed it straightaway. The idea that Christians had been wrong up until the Protestant “reformers” came along was absurd, and that Protestants could not even agree among themselves was enough to convince me that that such a position was ridiculous and a recipe for disaster. That left Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Orthodoxy at the time was a bit of a mystery to me. All I knew was that the Orthodox believe pretty much what Catholics believe, only expressed it differently, and have no Pope. Given that I had been baptised into the Catholic Church, was culturally connected to it and the fact that there was a “final arbiter” in the person of the Pope, (re-)joining the Catholic Church seemed like the logical thing. Here was an institution that had been around for two millennia; if it didn’t know human nature and how to help one lead a virtuous life, who would? I decided from then on to start going to Mass. And though I knew I didn’t believe everything the Church taught, I considered that day my “official” return.

Doctrinally, I held (without my knowing it) many heretical/Protestant ideas in the beginning. The Church was just a human institution with a common faith and Mass was just a gathering of the faithful where they celebrated their common faith; the sacraments were merely symbols; infant baptism was “invalid” or at least pointless (one needed to understand the sacraments); the three persons of the Trinity were “masks” for the same Person; Jesus was not God, but He was the greatest Creature;… These I held because they made sense to me, but I had always remained open to what the Church actually teaches and eventually, as I began to learn what she does teach, I gave up these ideas in favour of her doctrine. The Eucharist was perhaps the hardest of all, even more than the Resurrection of the Dead. I was open to believing that it truly was the Body and Blood of Our Lord, but I did not believe it. Knowing that I did not believe what the Church did kept me from receiving Holy Communion. Then, one day, out of the blue, it just flashed within that it could only be His Body and Blood and from then on I never once doubted.

Upon returning to the Church and learning more about her, I discovered that what I had despised for so many years was not her, but the image I had of her, of what I thought she was, especially morals-wise. Morally, there was a lot that had to change with me. There were many ideas and beliefs that I had to give up. Some have told me that I am merely being reactionary, reacting against the beliefs I once held merely to distance myself from them and the person I was. And for a long time I did question if that was in fact the case. But eventually I came to realise that it wasn’t a reactionary impulse; that I had always been searching for Truth, and that in finding it (or rather, having allowed Him to find me) I could only submit to it and act accordingly. It took quite some time to make peace with myself, to come to terms with who I had been and who I was to become. Paradoxically, it was “necessary” for me to be without of the Church to come to the conclusion that all I had ever wanted was within it. I had gone on a journey across foreign lands and discovered a wonderous kingdom which was, in fact, the home from which I had left. The prodigal son had finally come home.


And so, here I am 9 years later, a different man than I had once been, and yet at the core, still the same. I have come a long way, and yet each day seems as though I’ve just begun. I walked in darkness, and now am slowly coming to the light. And while the initial zeal and fire (and naivety) has long burned out, with God’s grace I carry on because I have experienced the love of the Son who gave Himself up for me.

Darkness (or, the Descent) – Part I

This week marks 9 years since I returned to the Church. With the 10 year mark coming up, and with news of friends and acquaintances losing their faith in these past few years,  I decided to dig up my journal from the period before and during my conversion so that in looking back I can understand how I have gotten to where I am.

Reading through those pages, at times I did not recognize the person who wrote those words. It wasn’t due to the fact that certain passages were vague and I no longer remember what events they refer to (though there are plenty of those); rather, it was the tone, especially of the period before. So much anger, hubris, lust, envy… So much confusion swirling about at the time, and no compass to point the way out of the fog.


Where was I in the period just before I converted? I was a man searching for meaning, for the meaning of life, and a meaning to my life. Having left the Church at a young age not knowing what she is, I tried reading up on other religions. Buddhism and Toaism especially interested me, but shorn of any mysticism or anything that might smack of esoteric. (This desire for something with a lack of the supernatural element might have been due, in part, to experiences growing up, with my own relatives’ beliefs.) Eventually these did not satisfy me and I moved on to Philosophy (though I did hang on to what I called “Philosophical Taosim”). For a time Philosophy satisfied that hunger and I tried to read as much as I could, trying to make sense of life. Eventually I came upon Nietzsche. (I can’t recall how I came upon him; perhaps due to some of the company I kept at the time.) Nietzsche opened the door to Camus (and, to a lesser degree, to Schopenhauer, to radical individualists, etc.). I drank all of it in. Looking back now I realise the dangers of reading things which one is not equipped to read, especially without a guiding hand to show the way. Reflecting on this (among other things) would later on make me look to the Fathers – trustworthy guides to  interpreting the Scriptures.


I wanted to live a meaningful life, a virtuous life, but, at the same time, I wanted to indulge my passions. Yet what was this virtous life? I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker the German’s talk of morality as something of weaker men (and Christianity as being the morality of the weakest of all), and from the Frenchman I took that life was absurd and only I could give it meaning (the opening lines of The Myth of Sisyphus are still engraved in my mind all these years later, even after I have seen through their emptiness). From a political-philosophical point of view, I recognized no authority except that which I admitted. The Individual was supreme above all else, free from the fetters of society, of history, of culture, and whatever he entered into with another Individual was licit as long as it was agreed upon by both parties. Yet there was a small, almost imperceptible sensation that wanting to live a virtuous life was not exactly in conformity to giving into my desires, and that unrestrained “freedom” – the ability to choose whatever I wanted – was not in fact liberty, but a form of slavery to the raging, disordered appetites. Enter cognitive dissonance. Factor into that the inability to indulge in most of those passions (especially the one that consumed me the most), the hubris of an inflated ego that resulted from the authors I was reading, and ending a 5 year relationship and you get an unstable situation to say the least. I believed myself to be a one-eyed man deserving to be king in the land of the blind. For all my knowledge, I could not even recognize my own blindness; I could see no one, nor move from where I was.


Though I never wrote down the event in my journal, the memory of my “conversion moment” is still vivid in my mind. Not wanting to go into too much detail, as it is a very personal matter, it should suffice to say that one night, after returning home from work, I melted down; my walls of Jericho came crashing down. I, who up until then was no longer a believer in anything, who prided myself on being an “agnostic” (but was in fact an atheist), fell to my knees in tears and prayed what a friend years later would say is the one prayer that one can be certain the Lord will always answer, the prayer of the broken, of one who has reached rock bottom and has seen himself for what he really is, immersed in sin, fettered, unable to do what is right. I recall praying “God, I don’t know if you exist of not, but if you do, please save me from myself.” Immediately, a calm as I had never known came over me. I do not know how to put it into words, except by saying that while this calm was within me I realized that is was something from without, i.e., that it could not be and was not a product of my own psychological state or anything else of my own mind. All the confusion, all the anger and sadness and everything else that was inside at that moment ceased. It was as though I had experienced the Psalm verse “Be still, and know that I am God” (which I only heard of years later). I got up, went to bed and had the first night’s rest in a long time. I had fallen to my knees an unbeliever. I had arisen a believer.

But what exactly did I believe? Which was the God that had answered my prayers?


Benedictine roots

We returned home for my holidays, taking advantage of the time to do some Benedictine-related tourism. We visited two important places – the Royal Abbey of Alcobaça (formerly Cistercian) and the Monastery of Tibães. It is of this latter that I want to write about today.

The (former) Monastery of St. Martin of Tibães is located in Mire de Tibães, on the outskirts of the city of Braga, in northern Portugal. The monastery was founded in the 11th century, having been built upon an earlier cenobitic edifice. In the 16th century is was chosen as the “mother house” for the Benedictine order in Portugal and Brazil. Portugal had an agreement with the Holy See (much like Spain) called the Padroado, which, grosso modo, meant the state’s/crown’s resources were used in missionary activity in exchange for the crown chosing bishops for mission territory. Many of the bishops chosen for Brazil during this period were chosen from among the monks (of noble birth, it seems) of Tibães. I am curious as to the rationale behind this, as I’ve only ever heard of monastic bishops in the Eastern Churches. To accomodate the growing number of monks as well as its growing influence and prestige, the monastery underwent renovation up until the 19th century, ending up as an example of Portuguese Rococo. In the mid-19th century, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Portugal, the monastery fell into the State’s hands and was auctioned (excepting the sacristy, church, and cemetery), resulting later on in its near complete ruin. It was bought by the State again in the 1980’s and has since been under renovation.

The monastery functions mostly as a museum now. Interested as I am in liturgical matters, it saddened me to find no mention of the Portuguese Benedictines’ liturgical rite – the rite of Tibães – which they used in all their monasteries and institutions up until the Dissolution. Given the rite’s relationship with the Bragan rite, I hope to write about it some time in the near future on my blog dedicated to the Bragan rite.

Given that we are novice Benedictine oblates, I wanted to visit our Portuguese Benedictine roots. The Benedictines were very important in the country’s history, especially in its foundation. It was a privilege to visit this former Benedictine house. Wandering through the corridors I tried to imagine what it might have been like in its heyday, what the sounds and smells might have been. It also saddened me to see it not serving its original function, to know that such a great house had reached such disrepair, that it was not allowed to “die” naturally, if it were to die at all. In the end, it serves as a reminder that all things in this world are fleeting…

I leave you with some pictures my wife took (I can’t be trusted to take any – I just gawk):


Help a growing community

The Benedictine monks of Silverstream Priory (Roman Catholic Diocese of Meath, Ireland) are in need of expanding their library of writings by the Fathers of the Church and medieval writers.

We have been given some volumes of the Fathers, but we are far from having an adequate library of their writings in English translation.

In particular, several sources are needed for the formation of a new, expanded patristic course of readings for the Office of Matins, arranged according to the traditional liturgical year.

Benedictine monks rely on the study of the Fathers as part of their daily spiritual bread.  Our Father Saint Benedict says that we are to study Scripture and the commentaries thereon by “well-known, orthodox and Catholic Fathers.”

In other parts of the Rule, church fathers are mentioned by name (Ss. Basil and John Cassian), as well as the lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Would you consider donation to the monks of Silverstream so that they can more deeply partake of the fountain of wisdom that is the patristic heritage of the Church Catholic, East and West?

All benefactors, their families, and loved ones will be remembered in all of the prayers of the monks, both in the Divine Office and at Holy Mass.

God bless you for your generosity!–2


Wisdom of the desert

During Lent we took up some extra reading (apart from the daily readings of the Rule), and we’ve pretty much tried to keep it up even after Lent. Having read two encyclicals (Arcanum and Casti conubii, both dealing with Matrimony), we have moved on to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

DCF 1.0

I won’t go into an explanation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) “phenomenon”  simply because I couldn’t do justice to the theme, and there are already enough sources for that on the Internet. If you would like to get a taste of what a modern Desert Father is like, check out the video below, about Fr. Lazarus.

I would like to comment, however, on our impression of them. I was already somewhat acquainted with the Desert Fathers, having read bits and bobs of their sayings over the years, but for my wife this is something new. Reading the sayings with her has helped me to remember the freshness and wonder (and even oddity) I felt when I first discovered them.


What do these men and women of extraordinary ascetical feats have to teach us? While some of the sayings seem to us strange as we don’t know the context in which they were said, others make one reflect deeper on one’s own life. We find the Fathers severe, sometimes coarse even, and yet on the other hand they are merciful almost to the point of being blind to others’ sins. Their lives, if one is able to see beyond the superficial differences with ours, have much to teach us. They remind us that the spiritual life is one of struggle, that it is a battle against the flesh, the world and the Enemy (a message that I was not getting when I returned to the Church). They remind us that severity is not for the other, but for ourselves, as we tend to squander the graces God gives us. They remind us that just as God is merciful with us, so too must we be with our brothers and sisters. They remind us of the need of tears, of compunction, for our sins (I often wonder if frequent confession hasn’t done away with, from a psychological point of view,  crying over one’s sins. Perhaps the thought of knowing one can have recourse to Confession at any time keeps one from dwelling too much on the reality that is sin in our lives.) They remind us that the Christian life isn’t simply an ethical life, a life of “rules”, of dos-and-don’ts, but rather it is about conversatio morum – a conversion of life.

In closing, I would like to leave you with some of the sayings that have caught my attention so far:

[Abba Anthony] said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”

Three Fathers used to go and visit Blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’

A brother in a monastery was falsely accused of fornication and he arose and went to Abba Anthony. The brethren also came from the monastery to correct him and bring him back. They set about proving that he had done this thing, but he defended himself and denied he had done anything of the kind. Now Abba Paphnutius, who is called Cephalus, happened to be there, and he told them this parable: “I have seen a man on the bank of the river buried up to his knees in mud and some men came to give him a hand to help him out, but they pushed him further in, up to his neck.’ Then Abba Anthony said this about Abba Paphnutius: ‘Here is a real man, who can care for souls and save them.’ All those present were pierced to the heart by the words of the old man and they asked forgiveness of the brother. So, admonished by the Fathers, they took the brother back to the monastery.


Someone said to blessed Arsenius, “How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?” Abba Arsenius said to him, “We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.”

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education ask this peasant about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’

Words from the desert

It was told of a brother who came to see Abba Arsenius at Scetis that, when he came to the church, he asked the clergy if he could visit Abba Arsenius. They said to him, ‘Brother, have a little refreshment and then go and see him.’ ‘I shall not eat anything,’ said he, ‘till I have met him.’ So, because Arsenius’ cell was far away, they sent a brother with him. Having knocked on the door, they entered, greeted the old man and sat down without saying anything. Then the brother from the church said, ‘I will leave you. Pray for me.’ Now the visiting brother, not feeling at ease with the old man, said, ‘I will come with you,’ and they went away together. Then the visitor asked, ‘Take me to Abba Moses, who used to be a robber.’ When they arrived the Abba welcomed them joyfully and then took leave of them with delight. The brother who had brought the other one said to his companion, ‘See, I have taken you to the foreigner and to the Egyptian, which of the two do you prefer?’ ‘As for me,’ he replied, ‘I prefer the Egyptian.’ Now a Father who heard this prayed to God saying, ‘Lord, explain this matter to me: for Thy name’s sake the one flees from men, and the other, for Thy name’s sake, receives them with open arms.’ Then two large boats were shown to him on a river and he saw Abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.

  • The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Ward)

arsenius_the_great    st-mosestheblack

Thou hast ascended on high

This Ascension Thursday was the first time I witnessed the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle. The lighting of the Paschal Candle is part of one of my favourite liturgical moments of the year (if not the favourite) – the Exultet. I have a post saved on the topic of the Exultet for another time; at the moment I want to reflect a bit on the meaning of the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle.


The Paschal Candle’s presence in the novus ordo is virtually perennial; not so in the vetus ordo. The Paschal Candle symbolizes the resurrected and glorified Christ. In the vetus ordo the candle is present since the Paschal Vigil, remaining lit in the sanctuary for 40 days, symbolizing the 40 days the resurrected Christ spent still among His disciples. On the 40th day, on the day of the Ascension, the Paschal Candle is extinguished, symbolizing Our Lord’s bodily Ascension. The Candle will only be relit for the Vigil of Pentecost (in the case of the pre-’55 rite), when the Mass parallels the Paschal Vigil.


Here is the genius of the Liturgy handed down to us. Here is a reminder that the Son has ascended to the Father; that we have spent these past 40 days in His company with His disciples, that we will no longer see His resurrected and glorified body with our eyes, but will require the eyes of Faith to see Him present in the Eucharist. We must remember that when the Sacred Mysteries are celebrated, we are outside chronos – outside chronological time – and inside kairos – sacred time, God’s time – and that we are re-living the events we celebrate (hence why the liturgical texts always refer to the present; the Hanc igitur of Pascha refers to the resurrection this day; the Ascension’s texts as well ).

Are we aware of the meaning of these symbols and their meanings, or do we just go through the motions?


Confession and the senses

Today my thoughts have settled on the details surrounding a confession I made nearly 3 years ago. What I’d like to write about today is the externals of it and the way they made an impression upon me.

Flashback to our daughter’s baptism. While the church was being prepared for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, my wife and I decided that it might be a good idea to go to Confession before. The confessionals of the old village church serving as storage, we left the location up to the priest. He chose in front of the altar. Thinking back now, I wonder if the decision was a coincidence, or if it was deliberate as he is bi-ritual (he celebrated at the Russicum for a number of years). I mention this last aspect because I am aware that Byzantines (at least) have the habit of confessing before the iconostasis; I have also read in Dr. Hull’s book, The Banished Heart, that it was a medieval custom in the West to confess before the altar as well.
As I kneeled before him and he gave me absolution, he extended his hands (as is usual for the priest to do), but extended them so as to place them upon my head.

These two details – kneeling before the altar and the placing on of hands – were what impressed upon me the most.

What are these actions telling us visually? What does confession in a confessional tell us visually? Now, the following is just my reflection on the matter, and might very well be wrong, but still I would like to share it (if only for someone to correct me if I am wrong).

While I’ve never been against the confessional, if I were asked what it says to me visually, I would say that Confession within the confessional sends a message of it being a matter just between yourself and the priest; there doesn’t seem to be anything visual to connect it to the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist.


With Confession before the altar, however, one sees the altar, where Christ becomes present in His adorable Body and Blood. Why am I confessing here? What does it mean? After all, isn’t Confession about my personal sins and being reconciled to the Church? And yet, what does it mean to be reconciled to the Church but to be in communion with her? And the visible sign of that communion is the Holy Eucharist. Reconciling before the altar, besides being a visual reminder of restituting communion with the Mystical Body of Christ, is also a reminder that having been reconciled one is now able to participate in the Liturgy, to exercise one’s priestly vocation as a baptized Christian. One is also now, in a sense, able to offer himself up on that same altar, to be taken up with the offerings up bread and wine and to be transformed into Christ.

The laying on of hands in the Christian tradition has several meanings. Among them are those of healing and blessing, which are intimately connected. We see in the Gospels Christ impart blessings and healing by placing His “holy and venerable hands” upon people; in the book of Acts the Apostles continue this. When the priest laid his hands upon my head – when I felt those hands press upon it – and said the words of absolution, the thoughts that came to my mind were not of a legalistic “wiping-my-record-clean” bent; rather, they were of healing. This is truly a sacrament, of restoring justice, yes, but also of healing; of curing a diseased and moribund member of the Body and bringing it back to Life. It is not either/or, but both/and.



On Matrimony – the yoke and martyrdom

Our wedding anniversary is fast approaching and, as several friends’ marriages colapse and crumble, the meaning of Matrimony is something that is presently on my mind.

I proposed to my wife one year after we started dating. Before I met her, the married life was the farthest thing from my mind, but then the Lord has a way of pointing out the path when you continuously hit your head against the same wall. In a way, I was important in re-introducing her back to the Church, while she was pivotal in my becoming more “vocal” about my faith.
Our preparations hit a major obstacle which postponed our wedding 6 months. Not desiring to go into details, it should suffice to say that we had to run the metaphorical gauntlet because of the rite we desired. Over these 6 months I would frequently tell my (hopefully) wife-to-be that we would either come through this trial together, strengthened in our faith, or “we” would not come through it at all. The experience was not something I would wish on anybody getting ready to marry, but the Lord came through in the end (as He did in so many other ways for our wedding), and all that we suffered because of it – both before and after – helped to deepen the bond between us and to grow in faith and trust in Providence.


While other liturgical matrimonial rites (I am thinking of, for example, the Mozarabic and Byzantine) are rich in symbolism, the Roman rite is rather restrained. And yet there is one very subtle detail about the vetus ordo matrimonial rite which, as rich as it is, may easily go unnoticed by the aliturgical eye. I am speaking of the bride and groom entering the sanctuary. This might not seem a big deal, but those familiar with the vetus ordo will know that laity are not allowed within the sanctuary. The only occasion that a layman might enter, apart from ordination, would be on their wedding day. What is the big deal about such an insignificant detail, you might ask. We must remember that, liturgically, the sanctuary represents the sancta sanctorum, the Holy of Holies. When the couple enters into the sanctuary, where the priest offers the Holy Sacrifice, to exchange vows, what are they doing? It is not a mere blessing that they are receiving up there (though there is a blessing in the Mass that follows). No, they are taking their eros – their natural love – and offering it to God, that He may take it and transform it into a supernatural love. The couple exchange their vows – they sacrifice themselves for one another, so to speak – before the altar, so that the Lord might take it up and reveal its true meaning. When they come back from the sanctuary, they are not merely “husband and wife”. They are now an icon of Chirst and the Church. Just as Christ offers up his body for the Church at the altar, so too does the couple offer eachother themselves.

When people ask me what marriage is about I tend to reply: “martyrdom”. It always elicts surprise and shock. And while I might say it for the shock effect, (hopefully) the person asking will then ask what I mean by such a cryptic answer.
In my language, we can refer to our spouse as “conjuge”; the English language has “conjugal” as an adjective that relates to the married state. Why do I bring this up? Because of the etymology of the word. These words derive from the Latin conjungere – to be joined. A litteral translation would be “co-yoked”. The married couple is now “co-yoked”. They have both put on that same easy yoke which is the Cross. The couple’s life in common is now supposed to be an image of Christ and the Church. They must give witness – martys – of this reality in their everyday life. And everyday married life, especially after children come along, provides abundant occasions for mortification.

While there are plently of natural reasons for why Matrimony is indissoluble and must be open to life, I prefer to take a different approach to the matter, which I think is a valid approach.
If the couple now represents Christ and the Church, then it necessarily follows that their union must be indissoluble, for the Church is born of Christ’s side, just as Eve was of Adam’s, and Christ is ever-faithful to the flesh of His flesh. As for openness to life, just as the Church is generous in generating spiritual children, bringing them forth from her womb which is the baptismal font, so the couple must be generous.
Why this approach? I think part of our current crisis of faith is the inability to look at things liturgically. We do not see our lives as liturgy.

Is this just fanciful thinking? I think not.

As we prepared for that blessed day, the ill-reputed Ephesians pericope became the lense through which we were to see and understand the sacrament we were to “confect”, so much so that we had inscribed in the interior of our wedding bands “Ephesians 5”. I think it is worth recalling the pericope in question:

Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it: That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life: That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church: Because we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church.


It is from here that we get the understanding of Matrimony as icon. Hearing subjection refered to in the above-mentioned pericope might make some cringe and think it out-dated, but that would only be in the case of a faulty reading. One reads “women be subject to their husbands” and stops right there; one does not see the context in which it is said. Because we have a fallen understanding of subjection, we see it as a question of dominance, of power, of injustice. Yet if we don’t stop there, if we continue the reading we will see that the Church is subject to Christ as well. Does Christ “lord it over” the Church? Is the Church’s subjection to Him a humiliation, an injustice? Matrimony is about a mutual submission (and the Ephesian pericope’s greater context is just that – mutual subjection, though there may be heirarchical distinctions). Even in the Holy Rule we see that the Abbot must adapt himself to his monks for their salvation – is this not a form of subjection, even though they are subject to him? It is not, as certain would say, misogynistic, for even though both are helping the other in their sanctification, the greater burden seems to be placed on the husband. And if one reads the encyclicals on Matrimony (Arcanum and Casti Conubii, for example), the woman’s dignity and companionship is always stressed, as well as the husband’s responsibility to be as Christ.

We need to figure out how to apply this in our specific circumstances.

It surprises me that however often the subject of the Mandatum, the washing of feet, comes up, one rarely, if ever, hears mention of Matrimony to it. The washing of feet is rich in layers of meaning, especially depending on its context, so I don’t see why one cannot “adopt” it into the matrimonial context. When we finally got home on our wedding day it was something that came to my mind quite naturally. While it was done in silence, I think we both knew the meaning of what was being done in that context, especially given that part that Ephesians 5 plays in the understanding of our matrimonial vocation.

Not us.

In closing, I would like to share this beautiful exhortation from the end of the Bragan rite’s Missa pro sponso et sponsa. At the end, the priest places the bride’s hand into the groom’s and says:

Frate, accipe conjugm tuam, et delige eam ut carnem tuam. Et trado tibi uxorem et non ancillam: tu autem custodi et dilige eam sicut Christus Ecclesiam: et ambulate in Pace. In nomine Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Brother, receive your wife and love her as your own flesh. For I give you a spouse  and not a slave: you, then, must guard and love her as Christ the Church. Go in peace.